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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A newspaper giant tried to diversify its staff. White workers sued.

By Taylor Telford Washington Post

After more than 20 years of working for his hometown newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York, Steve Bradley was laid off amid pandemic-induced cost-cutting in May 2020. He was crushed, but he eventually took a communications job for a local school district.

Then, two years later, he received a startling message.

Sitting in the bleachers at the school softball field in July 2022, Bradley took a phone call from an unknown number. He listened as J. Nelson Thomas, an employment lawyer he’d never met, presented a jarring claim: Bradley was laid off because he is white.

Now, Bradley is one of five named plaintiffs in a proposed class-action lawsuit that claims the country’s largest newspaper publisher “discriminated against non-minorities” to achieve diversity goals. Filed in August in Virginia federal court, the suit alleges that Gannett fired white employees, denied them opportunities for advancement and replaced them with less-qualified minority candidates as the company sought to diversify its workforce.

The case is among the first to test the legality of corporate diversity practices in the wake of a June Supreme Court ruling that struck down affirmative action in college admissions. That decision has sparked a wave of litigation aimed at racial considerations in the workplace, including claims that corporate efforts to increase diversity have disadvantaged white employees.

For Bradley, 56, the decision to pursue legal action wasn’t easy. He’d always thought it was good that Gannett was working to boost diversity. But he also “wanted to be judged” based on his work and the work of his team, he said, not his race.

“Somebody needed to stand up to them,” Bradley said in an interview. To know “that the decision was made because of how I look? I’m not okay with that.”

In a statement, Gannett declined to discuss the lawsuit but said it “always seeks to recruit and retain the most qualified individuals for all roles within the company.”

“We will vigorously defend our practice of ensuring equal opportunities for all our valued employees against this meritless lawsuit,” Polly Grunfeld Sack, Gannett’s chief legal counsel, said in an email.

Private employers have been barred for decades from making employment decisions based on race. Long-standing legal precedent has allowed companies to take targeted, temporary steps to mitigate historic racial inequalities in their workforces. But the recent ruling on college admissions suggests that it’s “no longer appropriate to be looking at someone’s race for the benefit of diversity,” said Devon Westhill, president and general counsel at the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank.

While the vast majority of Americans are in favor of equal opportunity, “the way in which it’s practiced really is divisive,” Westhill said. “It foments resentment.”

In recent years, claims of race-based discrimination by white workers have made up only about 11% of charges submitted for review by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to data obtained by the Washington Post. But now many legal experts expect those numbers to soar. Westhill said race-based employee affinity groups, fellowships and grant programs exclusively for minorities are especially likely to face legal challenges, as are company policies that tie executive compensation to diversity targets.

Those targets are intended to promote racial and gender equity, which remains a struggle in corporate America. Women and people of color hold less than 14% of C-suite roles across Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies, according to data from executive search firm Crist Kolder Associates. Last year, American women earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by white men — a gap that worsens for women of color, according to data from Pew Research Center.

Leon Prieto, a professor of management at Clayton State University, said discrimination claims from white people often fail to acknowledge “the historical context” of workplace discrimination. “Historically speaking, many corporate cultures have been rooted in biases that favor Americans of European descent over others,” Prieto said. “This has been well-documented.”

Indeed, the earliest efforts to tackle racial disparities in the workforce began in the 1960s and ‘70s, when companies used racial quotas to combat those biases in hiring, Prieto said. Such quotas were later deemed unconstitutional; Prieto said some companies still overly emphasize racial diversity among new hires instead of taking the more modern view that “DEI is not just about hiring ethnic minorities, it’s about embracing all talent.”

“A myopic focus on quotas doesn’t really address inclusion efforts,” Prieto said.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020, Gannett was among scores of corporate giants that made sweeping commitments to increase workforce diversity. The media juggernaut, which owns several hundred daily and weekly newspapers across the country in addition to its flagship publication, USA Today, repeatedly expressed aims to “reach racial and gender parity with the diversity of our nation,” according to the lawsuit. Along with other goals, the company set a target of increasing the number of people of color in leadership positions by 30% by 2025.

Gannett has yet to release its 2023 inclusion report, which offers an annual demographic breakdown of the company’s newsrooms and progress toward diversity goals. The most recent data on the company’s workforce diversity page shows that Gannett Media’s staff is nearly 70% white and 57% male. Black employees make up about 11.5% of staff members. Nearly 8% of employees are Hispanic, about 3% are Asian and less than 1% are Indigenous.

In its 2022 inclusion report, Gannett highlighted progress toward its diversity goals, saying more than 16% of employees at the director level or higher were people of color, up 2.3% from the previous year. “People of Color and Women in leadership continues to grow at a faster pace than overall representation,” the report noted.

This progress came at a cost to white employees, the lawsuit claims. Management directed leaders to exclude white candidates, as the company prioritized race over job performance and other professional qualifications, according to the complaint. Gannett also tethered executive performance to success with diversity goals, the complaint states.

“The implementation of this policy resulted in the termination of numerous well qualified workers based purely on their non-minority status,” the complaint states.

Gannett’s diversity efforts predate the commitments the company made after George Floyd’s murder, according to Thomas, the attorney representing the former Gannett employees.

“What you see happening is Gannett seeing the George Floyd situation and saying, ‘Hey, we do this stuff already, let’s go public with it,’ ” Thomas said. The plaintiffs are asking Gannett to put an end to the 2020 policy, and to award them lost pay, benefits and other monetary damages.

In nearly three decades as an employment attorney, Thomas said he has never before represented a white person claiming racial discrimination. But he felt compelled to take the case, he said, after hearing how Gannett tried to meet diversity targets.

“This country needs racial diversity,” Thomas said. “But if companies go about doing it this way, it’s going to kill it.”

The circumstances around Bradley’s firing first caught Thomas’s attention when a reporter at the Democrat & Chronicle sent Thomas screenshots from a text exchange she’d had with the paper’s executive editor, Michael Kilian. The reporter had questioned Gannett’s diversity efforts involving Asian Americans. Kilian defended his management record by replying that he had hired the first Asian American city editor in Utica decades earlier and that he once had an Asian American lieutenant.

And, Kilian added, he “laid off Steve (Bradley)” instead of one of Bradley’s former colleagues on the sports staff, who is Asian American.

While another white, male sports staffer was laid off alongside Bradley, the complaint states that “no non-minority members of the sports writing staff were terminated during this time period.”

“Any news site can work harder at inclusion, but we have done our best at a time of constant cuts,” the message from Kilian concluded. Kilian did not respond to requests for comment.

Thomas soon encountered other ex-Gannett staffers who alleged the company had discriminated against white employees in its quest to meet diversity goals. Plaintiff Stephen Crane, a former editor of the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana, alleges he was told to consider only minority candidates for open positions. Crane claims he had to rescind an offer to a white, male candidate “despite the fact that he tried, but could not find enough qualified minority applicants,” the lawsuit says. Crane alleges he faced retaliation for raising concerns about how Gannett was going about meeting diversity targets. He resigned in 2021.

Another plaintiff, Noah Hiles, found himself working alone in summer 2021 when the only other sports staffer quit just two months after Hiles joined the Beaver County Times in Aliquippa, Pa. Hiles offered to use his contacts to help fill the opening and “was informed that the position needed to be filled by a minority,” the complaint states.

Hiles helped find a minority candidate, who eventually was hired. Then Hiles learned the employee — whom he was now overseeing — was making 17% more than him. Frustrated, Hiles approached management about a raise but was told that Gannett paid the new employee more “to ensure they satisfied their racial quota and that he would accept the position,” according to the complaint.

Although Bradley was laid off before Gannett set its post-George Floyd diversity targets, he believes these goals cost him the chance to return to a newsroom. In early 2021, Bradley applied to become executive editor overseeing Gannett newsrooms in New York’s Mohawk Valley. He made it through multiple rounds of interviews and was told in February 2021 that he was a finalist for the job, along with one other white, male candidate, according to the complaint.

Then, he stopped hearing from Gannett.

A month later, Bradley learned that a new candidate had emerged. The job went Sheila Rayam, a former reporter and community engagement editor - and the first Black person to hold the position. In an interview with Buffalo State University last year, Rayam said her editor had approached her about the role, asking “if she’d like to run her own newsroom.” Rayam is now the executive editor of the Buffalo News.

Rayam declined to comment.

In Rayam, Bradley said he saw someone with less newsroom management experience, who hadn’t been interested in the job and who was recruited by Gannett executives over more qualified white candidates. But he said he takes issue with Gannett — not Rayam or others the company opted to keep or promote.

“This is a company that, if the government or another business were doing what they were doing, they’d have their watchdog reporter call over to them,” Bradley said. “If you’re going to hold the rest of the world to a standard, you should live up to that standard yourself.”

After the initial phone call with Thomas, Bradley said he felt shocked and overwhelmed. He went for a long walk, rethinking the end of his time at Gannett. He then spent months debating whether to go ahead with a lawsuit.

Ultimately, Bradley said, he decided he had to speak out about his experience.

“Racism is racism, and right is right and wrong is wrong,” Bradley said. “Decisions should be based on the quality of a candidate and the quality of performance and not protected class issues. That’s really what it comes down to.”